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Why "Hate Crimes" are Wrong


Americans should think long and hard about the making the feeling of repugnance at an unwanted sexual advance subject to additional penalties under the law. There is an old saying that hard cases make bad law. Americans should examine the calls for additional hate-crime legislation with extreme care. There is more at stake than any simple claim of human rights.

Father Richard John Neuhaus

It is a sad story, and what they did to him was despicable. These guys were drinking in a Laramie bar and University of Wyoming freshman Matthew Shepard reportedly made a pass at one of them, whereupon two young men took him out, brutally beat him, robbed him, and left him tied to a fence. A few days later, he died in hospital. It immediately became a nationwide cause celebre for gay and lesbian groups agitating for hate crime laws that include “sexual orientation.” Mr. Shepard's father expressed the hope that nobody would exploit his son's death in order to push an agenda, but the agitators knew when they had come across a good thing. The lead editorial in our establishment paper was titled “Murdered for Who He Was.”

The editors remind us that African-Americans, Asians, Jews, Italians, Irish, and others have been victims of hatred. “Gradually, crimes motivated by hate have come to be seen as a category of their own.” It apparently took the editors some time to recognize that few such crimes are motivated by love. As to “Who He Was,” the editors describe young Shepard as being “slight, trusting, and uncertain how well he would be accepted as an openly gay freshman.” They add that he had spent time in Europe and “spoke three languages or more.” The point being made, it seems, is that this is not just another black or Puerto Rican kid who was brutally beaten and killed. The editors are saying that he is one of us. This is a young man with whom we can, as it is said, identify. This is a murder that matters.

The editors continue, “He died in a coma yesterday, in a state without a hate-crimes law.” It is hard to know what to make of that. He might have pulled out of it if Wyoming had a hate-crimes law? “Hatred can kill,” the editors portentously announce. Noted for the record. Observing with satisfaction that the killers will be tried for first degree murder, the Times, which is otherwise adamantly opposed to the death penalty, adds, “But his death makes clear the need for hate-crime laws to protect those who survive and punish those who attack others, whether fatally or not, just because of who they are.” Apparently it needs to be made clear that beating people up and killing them is against the law. And, if it is done because of “who they are,” maybe the perpetrators should be executed more than once?

The admitted purpose of gay agitation for hate crime laws is to have homosexual acts (which in the real world define “sexual orientation”) put on a par with religion, race, gender, and age as a legally protected category. There are many good reasons for thinking that a bad idea. But the very idea of “hate crimes” is highly dubious. Hate is a sin for which people may go to Hell. It is quite another thing to make it a crime for which people should go to jail. The law rightly takes motivation into account; for instance, whether someone is killed by accident or by deliberate intent. In the latter case, malice of some sort is almost always involved, but it is not the malice that makes the killing a crime. A murderer may have nothing personal against someone whom he kills for his money.

It is generally wrong to disapprove of people because of their religion, race, or gender, but it is not a crime. (An exception may be disapproval of someone whose religion includes committing terrorist acts.) The purpose of the gay movement and its advocates, such as the Times, is to criminalize disapproval of homosexual acts, or at least to establish in law that such disapproval is disapproved. Most Americans, it may safely be assumed, disapprove of homosexual acts. It is not within the competence of the state to declare that they are, for that reason, legally suspect. In a sinful world, sundry hatreds, irrational prejudices, and unjust discriminations abound. The homosexual movement is notable for its venting of hatred against millions of Americans whom it accuses of being “homophobic.” In whatever form it takes, hatred toward other people must be deplored and condemned. But it is utterly wrongheaded to try to make hatred illegal.

David Morrison, writing in the New York Post, offers a further reason for thinking more than twice about laws against hate crimes. He notes Newsweek's report that Mr. Shepard seems to have had a history of approaching “straight” men for sex.

There is, says Morrison, who describes himself as a “former gay activist,” a substantial subculture of the gay subculture that goes in for “rough trade” — cruising in public places for sex with straight or semi-straight toughs. He writes, “Yet the fact that a significant number of men strongly desire and pursue public sex under occasionally dangerous circumstances should influence the ongoing conversation, spurred by Shepard's death, about the necessity or wisdom of including sexual orientation in hate-crimes laws.... Americans should think long and hard about the making the feeling of repugnance at an unwanted sexual advance subject to additional penalties under the law. There is an old saying that hard cases make bad law. It seems to me that the 1990s have provided a corollary: Tragic cases can make bad laws more quickly. Americans should examine the calls for additional hate-crime legislation with extreme care. There is more at stake than any simple claim of human rights.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say, “The law cannot make you love me, but it can prevent you from lynching me. And, if you don't lynch me, you may eventually come to love me.” We should certainly love our gay brothers, even as we disapprove of the acts that define them as gay. Loving them includes our saying, always lovingly, that they are wrong in trying to use the law to stigmatize those who disapprove of what they do, which is not, the Times to the contrary, the only or the most important thing that determines “who they are.”


Neuhaus, Richard John. “Why “Hate Crimes” are Wrong.” First Things 89 (January 1999): 76-77.

Reprinted with permission of First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010. To subscribe to First Things call 1-800-783-4903.


Father Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things. He is the author of many books, including As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, The End of Democracy?: The Celebrated First Things Debate with Arguments Pro and Con and "The Anatomy of a Controversy, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, The End of Democracy?: The Judical Usurpation of Politics, The Best of "The Public Square": Book One, The Best of "The Public Square": Book Two, The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation: Jews and Judaism in America, and The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.

Copyright © 1999 First Things



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